MIDI Reloaded: Why MIDI Still Matters, Part 2

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Last month, part 1 of this column re-acquainted us with the basics and benefits of MIDI, such as being able to edit notes, transpose, and change instrumentation in a song without having to re-record digital audio. This month, we’ll investigate various more advanced techniques that demonstrate some of MIDI’s power.

“Humanize” with individual timing tweaks. Ignore any menu item called “humanization,” because this usually just adds randomness—that’s not what makes timing human (unless the human in question had too much to drink). Instead, alter note timings manually or use a “slide” editing function; note that any “snap” function needs to be turned off, and these changes should be subtle. For example:

  • Jazz drummers often hit a ride cymbal’s bell ahead of the beat (earlier) to “push” a song.
  • Rock drummers frequently hit the snare behind the beat (later) for a “big” sound.
  • For electronic dance music, move double-time percussion parts (shaker, tambourine, etc.) slightly ahead of the beat for a “faster” feel.
  • With tom fills, delay each subsequent note of the fill a tiny bit more. This can make a tom fill sound gigantic.
  • If two percussion sounds or staccato harmony lines often hit on the same beat, try sliding one part ahead of or behind the beat to keep the parts from interfering with each other.
  • Move a crash cymbal ahead of the beat to highlight it, or behind the beat to have it mesh more with the track.
  • If a bass note and kick hit on the same beat, delay the bass slightly to emphasize the drum (hence the rhythm), or advance the bass to emphasize melody.

Also, try tempo tweaks. Most DAWs have tempo tracks, or the ability to place markers that change tempo at specific places (see Figure 1at left). If you’re in the compositional phase and using MIDI (as suggested last month), add moderate tempo tweaks to push the tempo or lay back a bit. This can do wonders for expressiveness; play to these changes when you overdub electric or acoustic instruments.

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Gain a wheel. Break free from using the modulation wheel to bring in a pitch LFO for vibrato. Instead, use pitch bend for vibrato—if guitar players can add vibrato manually, so can you! That frees up the modulation wheel to do tricks like changing filter cutoff, altering detuning, and the like, many of which have been explored in Jerry Kovarksy’s series “The Art of Synth Soloing” in this magazine. Also, don’t forget the footpedal jack or aftertouch—the more sources of human control, the better.

MIDI data-based “compression” and “limiting.” Most DAWs can edit MIDI velocity data, which opens up the possibility of MIDI-based dynamics control. For limiting, add a constant to all velocities and then subtract the same amount to restore the non-limited values. For example suppose a MIDI track’s note velocities range from 70 to 127, and you want a maximum velocity of 95. Add 32 (127 minus 95, the highest desired velocity) to all velocities, and now velocities will range from 102 to 159. However, velocities can’t exceed 127, so any velocities that were 95 or above will now have velocities of 127. Next, subtract 32; all velocities that were at 127 will now be 95, while any velocities that were originally under 95 will revert to their original values.

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You can also compress data. Divide the MIDI data by a constant, which is like a compressor’s ratio control. Then add a constant to provide “make-up gain.” For example, suppose a track’s note velocities range from 50 to 120 and you want to compress velocity by a ratio of two to one. Divide the note velocities by two; the values now range from 25 to 60. Add 60 to bring the maximum value back to 120, and the values range from 85 to 120. Some programs include MIDI plug-ins for dynamics control (seeFigure 2), which simplifies this process.

“Groove” templates and timing. Quantizing MIDI notes to precise rhythmic values can sound “mechanical,” which is good for some types of music but not others. Groove templates (see Figure 3 below) also quantize, but to preset rhythm patterns (or patterns you create)—shuffles, swing, “humanized” percussive grooves, grooves that “lay back” or “push,” and so on.

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Why you need more octaves. Many virtual instruments (FXpansion Geist, Native Instruments Kontakt, EastWest’s Play engine, and many more) use MIDI keys not only to play specific notes but also to trigger articulations or variations on a basic sound. If your main USB MIDI controller doesn’t have enough notes, no worries—add a second USB MIDI controller. Assuming your DAW can select more than one MIDI device per track, it should respond to the outputs from both controllers.

MIDI and REX files. REX files chop digital audio into “slices,” each of which can then be triggered individually by a MIDI note. Slices can trigger at a faster or slower rate as you speed up or slow down a MIDI sequence, but you can also re-arrange the MIDI notes to trigger slices at times other than their original timings (see Figure 4below). This is particularly effective with drum loops, as each slice tends to have a single hit consisting of one or more drums—move these hits around to create a totally different drum pattern.

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The beauty of soft synth MIDI outs. More and more virtual instruments (especially drum instruments with built-in beats) include a MIDI output option, so you can use whatever MIDI data it generates as another instrument’s MIDI input. One of my favorite applications is loading up Zildjian’s Digital Vault (hosted by FXpansion BFD Eco) with a kit that contains only its wonderful cymbal sounds, but whose grooves can drive other drums as well—then using the MIDI out to drive the drum sounds in a different drum instrument, like XLN Audio Addictive Drums or Native Instruments Battery.

The local control “gotcha.” If your MIDI controller is a synth with a built-in sound generator, the keyboard usually feeds data to the internal sounds (called “local control”) as well to the synth’s MIDI out, at the same time. If your DAW echoes the interface’s MIDI in to the interface’s MIDI out, then the MIDI data will re-enter your synth’s MIDI in and cause “double triggering” because both the keyboard and the interface’s MIDI out trigger the same notes. To prevent this, disable the synth’s local control (typically a synth setup or preference option). Or, create a track in your DAW that transmits a value of zero on continuous controller 122, which turns off the synth’s local control. Also note that some DAWs default to sending “local control off” to prevent double triggering. To play your synth, turn on “input echo��� for the MIDI channel your synth feeds.

How-to guru Craig Anderton is considered one of the founders of the very concept of music technology journalism. His latest adventure involves wearing the mantle of “Chief Magic Officer” at Gibson Brands.